A Stern Pair of Eyes Might Be All We Need to Keep People From Littering

An angry gaze printed on packaging could stop folks from tossing trash on the sidewalk.
(Photo: Courtesy Peerj.com)
Dec 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s human nature to behave a bit differently when someone is watching—and the mere thought of being observed might be the key to keeping the world’s litterbugs from tossing cigarette butts, candy wrappers, junk food packaging, or stale chewing gum on the ground.

No, we’re not talking Big Brother–style mass surveillance cameras that watch to see if folks are chucking refuse on sidewalks—or even using DNA to shame people, as has been done in Hong Kong. Instead, all that might be necessary is putting a pair of angry eyes on an item’s packaging.

RELATED: The Mysterious Motorcycle Vigilante Tracking Down Litterbugs

At least, that’s the main finding of a study conducted by researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. In the study, published on Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, the researchers wrote that simply exposing people to a flier with a pair of angry eyes on it made folks two-thirds less likely to chuck the piece of paper on the ground.

“Our recent research on littering is based on the ‘watching eyes effect.’ This is the finding that placing images of human eyes in participants’ environments often causes them to behave in a more prosocial manner than they otherwise would,” wrote the researchers.

The fliers used in the experiments. (Photo: Courtesy Peerj.com)

The authors wrote that they got the idea for the antilittering experiment from research they did back in 2013 on how to prevent bike theft on campus. For that study, they found that putting posters with a pair of angry eyes on them on bike racks reduced incidents of theft by up to 62 percent. “This has gone on to be successfully used by Newcastle University, the British Transport Police and by police forces across the country, including Northumbria and Durham,” they wrote.

For this latest experiment, they decided to see what people would do with a flier wrapped around a bicycle’s handlebars. The control flier had an image of a bike lock and the phrases “Beware of bike thieves” and “Lock your bike.” The other had the same messages along with a pair of very serious eyes.

Illustration of the position of a flier on bicycle handlebars. (Photo: Courtesy Peerj.com)

The researchers covertly observed people’s behavior after they returned to their bikes and saw that the fliers with the eyes printed on them were less likely to be tossed on the ground. Only 5 percent of people dropped the flier with eyes on it, but nearly 16 percent of people dropped the eye-free control fliers. The researchers replicated the experiment with a third flier that had a smaller pair of eyes on it—option C in the image above—and found similar results.

“As we care what other people think about us, we behave better and more honestly when we feel we are being observed,” said Daniel Nettle, one of the lead researchers, in a statement. “This is reinforced by our results as we show that we didn’t need to include a message about littering, people know it is antisocial so it was enough to have an image of the eyes.”

According to Melissa Bateson, the other lead researcher, the research could be used to inexpensively shift littering behavior. “Fast-food retailers might want to think about using it on packaging to discourage people discarding the wrappers,” she said. Indeed, the researchers plan to tackle that issue next and figure out whether changing the eyes—from a man’s to a woman’s, for example—has the same effect.